This commentary considers several populist frameworks for apocalyptic thinking in Europe and the US, in historical and environmental perspective, with reflection on art forms that counter right-wing “ruin value.”
By Heidi Hart
Teaching American undergraduates in Berlin in the early 2010s, I asked my students to create short documentary films in places that held particular historical interest for them. Many of them chose dystopian remnants of the former East Germany, from an empty-windowed primary school to the famous Spreepark with its silent Ferris wheel and tumbledown dinosaur parts. Following the Abandoned Berlin website, these young students on the cusp of the Instagram age were already sensitized to dystopian films and graphic novels, though the totalitarian resurgences and up-close climate crises of our current decade were yet to come. Ruins seemed fun then; Berlin’s gentrification had not yet transformed all the peeling, shell-pocked back courtyards of now trendy neighborhoods.
Ten years later, ruins have become pathologically fun (I think of the selfie-driven tourism around Chernobyl) and at the same time painfully foreboding. Abandoned office buildings during the Covid-19 lockdown, with dead, ghostly potted plants, became a harbinger of an upended labor market amid rapidly intensifying climate disasters, from monster floods and megadroughts to heatwaves in unlikely places, as capitalism’s costs have become apparent on a planetary scale. The “new weird” genre of film and fiction, in which strange life forms might overtake an abandoned swimming pool (as in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation), now seems too close to home to be merely entertaining.
Especially for climate educators, artists, and activists, ruins are more than Instagrammable tourist destinations or spine-tingling movie scenes. They are all too real, as in the loss of giant redwood trees to California wildfires, the flooding of a temple complex in Thailand, or the exposure of archaeological sites as a dam-built reservoir recedes to record low levelsin Utah. The climate crisis has made “the fragility of our collective cultural enterprise” all too clear, as “[p]apyrus rots, paper burns, museums get sacked, hard drives crash” (Scranton, 2015: 100), not to mention whole towns charred to chimney-stumps by a wildfire.
For some populist groups, however, ruins and apocalyptic thinking hold a different and dangerous power. Instead of a sense of weirdness or “wrongness” (Fisher, 2016: 13) that might lead to critical re-evaluation of human industrial comforts, ruins in the right-wing populist or eco-fascist imagination can signal pleasure in a world without humans at all – or at least without those white supremacists would like to see gone.
This take on what is now called “ruin porn” is not new. “Ruinenwert” or “ruin value” was “one of Hitler’s favorite concepts … actually foreseeing the future ruins that would symbolize the greatness of the Third Reich, even after the demise of the empire” (Horvat, 2021: 88-89). Going back further in German culture, ruins were a key focal point in much Romantic art (see Pinto, 2016); the aristocratic gardens designed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe just outside Weimar include “sham ruins” to evoke the melancholy of time’s passing.
Well aware of this history, Hitler commissioned Albert Speer in 1934 to design a Greek-inspired proto-ruin for the Zeppelinfeld rallying ground (Horvat, 2021: 88). Speer provided Hitler with “a science fiction drawing that depicted the Zeppelin Field after the Götterdämmerung – or ‘after the Apocalypse’ – overgrown with ivy and with its column fallen” (Horvat, 2021: 89) according to the National Socialist “law of ruins” (Speer, 1970: 56). More recent architectural projects in Germany (the renovation of Frankfurt’s Old Town, for example) have raised specters of Nazism not only in their valorizing of an ideal “Heimat” but also in the far-right populist views of the designers and their political supporters (Moore, 2018).
The idea of a violent collapse of civilization (or at least the democratic version) has also regained traction among far-right groups in Germany. The case of Franco A., a soldier posing as a Syrian refugee and caught retrieving a loaded weapon from an airport bathroom in 2017, exposed a complex network of military and police personnel planning attacks on individuals and on the German government. Their goal: an unspecified date of armed insurrection that would send German democracy up in flames (Bennhold et al., 2021).
Author Dirk Laabs has traced the spread of this far-reaching movement in a recent book that reads “like a cancer diagnosis,” describing secret meetings, weapons stashes, and contact with the AfD party, as groups with names like Uniter and Nordkreuz have attempted to cause “Germany to fall like a house of cards on ‘Day X’” (Hemicker, 2021, translation mine). Members have ranged from elite soldiers to one of Angela Merkel’s former security officers. Though assassination plots and an attempt to storm the Reichstag in August 2020, fueled partly by anger at Covid restrictions, have mostly failed, the threat of “spontaneous” attacks remains (see Laabs, 2021).
In addition to end-times ideologies in Europe, eco-fascist fascinations with human ruins left behind, and widespread far-right interest in the Middle Ages (often for racist reasons, imagining a “threat from the East” [S.N., 2017]), apocalyptic notions appeal strongly to many Trump supporters in the US. Building on post-9/11 wishful thinking for a conflagration in Israel that would bring about the Second Coming of Christ (as popularized in the Left Behind fiction series [see Gribben, 2004]), an ideology of Trump’s inciting chaos to accelerate the end of the world has gained traction even among those who dislike his personality (Lecaque, 2019).
Though Trump himself is hardly a religious figure, “his lack of apparent belief in anything has freed him up to seek out and uniquely cater to whatever group would show the most allegiance” (Morris, 2020). Stacking his staff with Christian fundamentalists, inciting reactionary thinking in his rally rhetoric as well as actual chaos on the world stage, Trump appears (even after his 2020 loss) to revel in teetering at the edge of the end times. The January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington evoked a Götterdämmerung atmosphere, amid economic crisis and a global pandemic. What ruins of American democracy would be left behind?
As Amir Ahmadi Arian pointed out as early as 2017, anti-Trump apocalyptic thinking is equally dangerous. The Spiegel’s post-election cover image of Trump as an open-mouthed meteor hurtling toward Earth is one example of “push[ing] Trump so far down the ladder of evil that he ultimately ceased to be a human, and became endowed with magical destructive forces” (Arian, 2017). The risk in demonization is turning one’s enemy into a god and taking pleasure (however guiltily) in watching the world burn.
Some antidotes to enjoying the threat of destruction (or commodifying it, in the case of Chernobyl tourism) include rhetorical “prose” instead of “poetry,” as Arian suggests, as well as clear-eyed and compassionate approaches to images of loss, toxicity, and decay. A helpful model is Andrei Tarkovsky’s iconic film Stalker (1978-79), filmed in the literal ruins of a “factory and two hydroelectric plants” outside Tallinn, Estonia (Riley, 2017: 21). In the film, the “stalker” or guide leads a writer and professor into this toxic landscape (which may well have led to the director’s early death from cancer), imagined as a mysterious “Zone” where wishes can come true. It is actually a liminal space between the “remnants of a ruined civilization” and “imminent human catastrophe” (Tarkovsky, Jr., Schlegel and Schirmer, 2018: 164), where humans must come up against their limits.
This Cold War-era film, with its dripping tunnels and overgrown train tracks, may call up contemporary associations with Chernobyl, but its slowness avoids the quick thrills of “dark tourism” that trivializes places where humans and whole habitats have died. It also counters eco-fascist celebrations of “empty” landscapes. The film works as a deeply phenomenological meditation on industrial waste, but with as much attention to human pain and care as it gives to human arrogance.
Films and artworks like Stalker that approach ruins with critical curiosity recall Jacques Derrida’s term “hauntology,”coined in a 1993 corrective to triumphalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not wanting to throw Marx out with the Cold War bathwater, Derrida re-imagined the 19th-century philosopher’s thinking as a “spectre” (as in Marx’s own words about the “spectre of Communism” haunting Europe) countering neoliberal fantasies of endless growth (Salmon, 2021, Derrida, 2006).
In the wake and waste of these fantasies, grass and water surface: “Stalker’s visual landscape represents a natural world that industrialization is incapable of industrializing, a landscape that modernization can no longer modernize” (Riley, 2017: 22). In the moment when the Stalker lies down in that grass to feel it fully, however, the film overcomes any illusion of natural “purity” restored after humans have gone.
Still, even critical contemplation of human-made ruins can be a luxury. For Indigenous communities whose worlds have already ended, ruins are not just artifacts or aesthetic reminders of human fallibility. In 2020, the Indigenous Action group in the US released Rethinking the Apocalypse: An Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto. This document refuses White end-times ideology by acknowledging cycles of death and rebirth that include human-made climate crisis.
From a post-apocalyptic perspective that carries genocide, stolen and poisoned sacred lands, forced education and mass graves of Native children, the end of the capitalist-industrial world may mean a rebirth of more grounded values – but not in the ecofascist sense of removing humans perceived as “other.” The manifesto includes this passage, as much invocation as provocation, with a different take on “ghosts” from Derrida’s:
“As Indigenous anti-futurists, we are the consequence of the history of the colonizer’s future. We are the consequence of their war against Mother Earth. We will not allow the specter of the colonizer, the ghosts of the past to haunt the ruins of this world. We are the actualization of our prophecies.
This is the re-emergence of the world of cycles.
This is our ceremony.
Between silent skies. The world breathes again and the fever subsides.
The land is quiet. Waiting for us to listen.” (Indigenous Action, 2020).
Likewise, as slave histories are rising up amid fear and backlash in the American education system, Black artists are finding powerful ways to expose their own inherited ruins. Choreographer Mayfield Brooks’ 2021 Whale Fall takes its title from the bodies of whales that fall to ruin and feed smaller creatures on the ocean floor, as a way to embody grief and regeneration through movement and sound in a bare-bones theatre. Brooks describes the piece not only as a vehicle for processing the generational trauma of slavery but also as a response to experiencing Covid; “I just felt like my body was decomposing” (Kourlas/Brooks, 2021). This slow, solitary piece ends with a trio of Black women in a ritual of nourishment after grief.
Making art with or from ruins is not new for artists from marginalized communities. Beverly Buchanan’s 1981 Marsh Ruins is a humbler, more historically embedded land installation than ephemeral works by Andy Goldsworthy or monumental constructions by Robert Smithson. In a tidal area on the Georgia coast, Buchanan constructed mounds of tabby (“a concrete made from lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash,” once used to build slave quarters (Art Papers, 2020) that serve as carriers of collective memory. Her work responds to literal tabby ruins in the area, including the remains of a former slave hospital that inspired the artist to create a container for “loss and unknowability – affirming the incompleteness of the historical record – while also evoking strength and endurance” (Groom, 2020: 51).
Having grown up in a privileged relationship to ruins (exploring a skeletal castle near my childhood school in Germany or visiting Native American sites in the American desert), I am learning to see these remnants with more attention to histories of power and loss. I try to take to heart Beverly Buchanan’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward tourism, making her own mock signs to direct people to her “roadside attraction” Marsh Ruins (Groom, 2020: 14). I will not be visiting Chernobyl, for all its overgrown mystique.
I am also more aware of my own tendencies to romanticize natural spaces that humans have apparently left behind, and to wish to hold memory in place – of the American mountain town where I lived before “resort” development, or the 19thcentury foundations exposed as drought dries up the local reservoir. After all, as Caitlin Desilvey has noted, “With each act of preservation, the vulnerable object becomes (a little bit of) us, and its unmaking threatens to unmake our identities as well” (2017: 13). This threat to identity can be an opportunity for more humility, for knowledge of our human limits in a world we’ve damaged beyond our own control.
Berardini, Andrew. Ed. (2021). Sirenomelia: Emilija Škarnulytė. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Derrida, Jacques. (2006). Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.
Desilvey, Caitlin. (2017). Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Fisher, Mark. (2016). The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books.
Gribben, Crawford. (2004). “Rapture Fictions and the Changing Evangelical Condition.” Literature and Theology. 18(1), 77–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23925696
Groom, Amelia. (2020). Beverley Buchanan: Marsh Ruins. Boston, MA: Afterall Books/MIT Press.
Horvat, Srećko. (2021). After the Apocalypse. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Laabs, Dirk. (2021). Staatsfeinde in Uniform. Wie militante Rechte unsere Institutionen unterwandern. Berlin: Econ Verlag.
Pinto, J. A. (2016). “Speaking Ruins: Travelers’ Perceptions of Ancient Rome.” SiteLINES: A Journal of Place, 11(2), 3–5.http://www.jstor.org/stable/24889511
Riley, John. (2017). “Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.” Journal of Film and Video. 69(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.5406/jfilmvideo.69.1.0018
Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.
Speer, Albert. (1970). Inside the Third Reich. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. London: Trafalgar Square.
VanderMeer, Jeff. (2014). Annihilation. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.